It's a tale of two very different teams in the early going for the ULM Warhawks and Liberty Flames to start the 2020 season.
The Warhawks (0-4) have had a rough showing, as they have been outscored 141-60 in four defeats and allowed at least 30 points in each game. ULM showed some fight last weekend against Georgia Southern, falling in the final seconds after a seven-yard run from quarterback Colby Suits fell just one yard short of the goal-line for what would have been the game-winning score.
Things won't get any easier for ULM on Saturday against a 3-0 Liberty team that will get its starting quarterback Malik Willis back after missing last week's contest against North Alabama. The Flames are getting it done on both sides of the ball, ranking in the top 10 in total defense while also averaging 457.0 yards per game on offense.
ULM at Liberty
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Liberty -19
When ULM Has the Ball
This is what happens when you lose all five starters along the offensive line from a year ago — you can't run the football at all. Even with a future NFL rusher in the backfield like senior Josh Johnson, ULM ranks 73rd of 74 teams in rushing at just 51 yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry. As a result, the Warhawks have been forced to take to the air with Suits, who is 10th among FBS quarterbacks with 38.3 pass attempts per game. Luckily, Suits has played well in his first four starts, throwing for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns, while completing over 63 percent of his throws. This will be his stiffest test of the year against a Liberty defense that ranks 10th against the pass (167.0 yards per game) and loves getting after the quarterback (12 sacks in three games).
As for ULM's best weapon, Johnson, it's been a struggle after he rushed for nearly 1,300 yards back in 2019. He has just 148 yards on the ground and hasn't surpassed 51 yards in a game yet. Liberty is not impenetrable defending the run, but the Flames have been strong thus far, allowing just 3.88 yards per attempt.
When Liberty Has the Ball
The best news to come this week for Liberty is that they will get Malik Willis back under center for this weekend's matchup after he missed a game with an elbow injury. The former Auburn transfer has been excellent to start 2020, completing 73 percent of his passes for 418 yards and two scores through the air. But where Willis has really showcased his skills is on the ground, where he leads the Flames with three rushing touchdowns and 253 yards on just 34 carries (7.4 ypc). According to head coach Hugh Freeze, Willis is "ready to go" and will not face any limitations against ULM.
There are no shortage of weapons for Liberty outside of Willis either, with senior running back Joshua Mack who has topped 100 rushing yards in each of the first three games and is averaging well over six yards per attempt. There is no Antonio Gandy-Golden on the Liberty roster this season, but senior slot receiver DJ Stubbs has provided a spark to the passing game with 13 catches and two scores in the last two weeks. If not Stubbs, look to redshirt freshman CJ Yarbrough to have an impact Saturday, as he is averaging more than 20 yards a catch through the early going and drew comparisons to Gandy-Golden this offseason.
While technically ULM is ranked seventh in the country in pass defense, the Warhawks have had two triple-option teams (Army and Georgia Southern) and UTEP on the schedule thus far. ULM ranks 52nd in total defense and 60th in scoring, so Liberty should be able to put up some points.
This isn't a matchup that favors ULM in any way. The Flames have been excellent at harassing the opposing quarterback with 12 sacks in just three games, and they are also limiting big chunks of yards through the air. That doesn't bode well for a ULM offense that can't protect the quarterback and will likely be forced to throw the ball with how inept their running game has been in the early going. Add in Liberty getting Malik Willis back under center, and this feels like a potential blowout, despite the Warhawks' promising showing last weekend.
Prediction: Liberty 38, ULM 20
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Joshua Mack photo by KJ Jugar/Liberty Athletics)